Zambello clearly trusts this material, offering a traditional production that’s brimming with theatrical energy and verve.

With glorious music by Leonard Bernstein, an excellent book by Arthur Laurents, magical choreography and original direction by Jerome Robbins and lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is a musical and dramatic feast featuring such famous songs as “Maria,” “Tonight,” the delightful “America”, and the plaintive “Somewhere.”

The story, based largely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is a clear story of “us vs. them” as the American gang The Jets squares off against the new arrivals from Puerto Rico, The Sharks.  This clash of cultures is finely honed by Zambello, as the gun violence that ends the tragedy is way too familiar to all of us. Zambello keeps the action fast-paced, clear, and vivid.

The real stars of this show are the brilliant choreography (Robbins’ choreography is painstakingly and stunningly recreated here by Joshua Bergasse and associate choreographer Kiira Schmidt Carper) and a cast of remarkable actor/dancers who work with amazing precision, skill, and endurance.  It’s the best theatre dancing I have ever seen.  Many dance moments were met by absolute silence from the slack-jawed audience which then roared with approval at the end of the numbers.

Most of the cast changes worked very well, though I have a few caveats.  The Maria of Kanisha Feliciano was played with genuine youthful innocence and her bell-like soprano fulfilled all the requirements of the role, though her highest notes occasionally turned shrill.

Our Tony this time around was Ryan McCartan, who possesses a gorgeous, plangent tenor and acts well, but he seems miscast.  His Tony is very light, naïve, and tender; it’s very hard to believe that this is the man who founded the Jets gang and fought numerous rumbles in the past.  He seems more innocent than Maria.  In his scene with Riff (the wonderful actor/dancer Brett Thiele), the two seem to come from completely different worlds rather than the best of friends.

Amanda Castro returns as the fiery, youthful Anita in a sparkling performance, singing and dancing wonderfully, especially in “America.” Brett Thiele’s Riff and Yurel Echezarreta as Bernardo make their gang rivalry especially vivid. Mark Daniel Aguirre is a rather colorless Chino.

Doc, the drug store owner, is female and well-played by Genevieve VenJohnson, though she lacks Doc’s usual authoritative power in the situations involving the gangs.  Well-known Chicago actors Keith Kupferer and John Lister are Schrank and Krupke, and Lillian Castillo is a delight as Glad Hand.

Peter J. Davison’s excellent sets provide mood and location, and work very well with the exception of Maria’s bedroom, high on a platform and feeling too remote for the audience.  Excellent costumes by Jessica Jahn and moody lighting by Mark McCullough complete the picture.

And what a joy to hear this glorious music played by the robust Lyric Opera Orchestra, led with propulsive energy and nuance by James Lowe.  It was an afternoon of sheer musical pleasure.

The production runs through June 25 and should be a near-sellout. I urge Chicago audiences to make this a viewing priority.

Photos: Todd Rosenberg